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Percival Everrett Discusses New Fall Novel “Dr. No”

Fall Preview Books

dr Nope

By Percival Everett
Gray Wolf: 232 pages, $16

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Percival Everett writes novels that play with gender, with language, and with our culture’s assumptions about race and gender. But for his novel “Dr. No,” in the November issue of Graywolf Press, Everett wrote about nothing.

The latest from the USC English professor and Guggenheim fellow is another cross-genre hybrid featuring a cast of characters from a 007 novel: John Milton Bradley Sill, a billionaire who wants to be a Bond supervillain; a mathematician named Wala Kitu whose specialty is the concept of “nothing”; and a young woman who is both a genius and a sexual object. They all become entangled in Sill’s desire to possess what is inside Fort Knox, with a subplot involving the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Everett spoke to The Times in August via Zoom about a lot of things, but mostly nothing.

In “Dr. No”, Sill wants to own everything, while Wala Kitu (both of whose names translate to nothing) specializes in nothing. “Zero” is a mental concept that cannot be demonstrated in real life. How did you conceive of a nothing you could write about?

I started with nothing. [Laughs.] Nothing has been a fascinating concept for a long time. The West refused to have the number zero because it undermined the notion of God: you can’t have anything because of the prime mover. But in the Near East and in the Arab world, nothing allowed for all kinds of tabulations. So in that very religious way, when you realize something was really helpful, you change your religion.

I love arithmetic; it is fascinating to me. I would like to be a mathematician. I would be if I was smart enough to understand a lot of the stuff I read, but I’m left with nothing.

What came first: the idea of ​​nothing or the desire to write a prank?

Honestly, I don’t know. It is certainly the case that every time I finish a novel, I immediately forget about it. Actually, the birth of the novel had nothing to do with the novel we finished. Actually, it was my thought: What if the character in my novel ‘Glyph’ grows up? At first [Wala Kitu] identifies himself as Ralph Townsend [the toddler-prodigy narrator of “Glyph”]. That’s where it started for me.

Sill thinks he can use his money to not own anything, instead creating negative space. Wala Kitu seems to understand that nothing is really neutral: stasis. Do I have this right? In his opinion, nothing has value?

The novel, although it is not about anything, is actually about finding something in nihilistic existence. For the characters, perhaps we could say that their search for nothingness is a response to a materialistic world that offers many things that are ultimately not very much and not satisfying. Of course, this is all nonsense, and doesn’t really add up to anything. That helps? I can’t go on, since I have nothing left. At least there is that.


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